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Is wearable technology killing our attention span?

New Statesman Tech editor Guy Clapperton glances at his wearable technology – a smartwatch – for the headlines – and wonders what wearables are doing to our ability to concentrate. Internet psychologist Graham Jones offers a different perspective.

Guy Clapperton, editor, New Statesman Tech:

It hit me quite hard a few days ago that I’d taken to using my smartwatch to reply to text messages. I was trying to catch a train, not much time, and just hitting a button that said “OK” was good enough. Then the downside started to strike me with some force. I’d started sending one-word – indeed, two-letter – texts.

That’s one thing when it comes to text and instant messages. Nobody expects or wants an epic and they don’t get one. Only, the shortening of attention spans doesn’t stop there.

I’d also started to check the headlines using a smartwatch app. This is useful for saving time but I started to wonder: is it having an effect on my ability to concentrate?

There is already evidence from Canadian research (reported here in the Telegraph) to suggest that human attention spans are falling, The Canadian researchers blame smartphones and this might make sense because of the smaller screens from which people get their information. I’ve certainly noticed when giving talks to business audiences that they’re quite likely to have their phones or tablets out and to be reading whilst listening.

There could be a number of things going on psychologically. They might simply be checking a reference I’ve dropped, or they could be checking up on me in general. The slightly paranoid side of me says that if they didn’t have smartphones they’d be looking out of the window, anything, as a displacement activity during my talks – I just hadn’t noticed before. I hope that’s not correct.

Wearable technology, particularly the smart watch variety, offers us an even smaller screen and therefore a tiny span of engagement. The Canadian research isn’t the only evidence that suggests we’re changing as a result of technology; this blog from Forbes looks at social media but identifies the overall barrage of information thrown at us every day as the culprit.

So are they right? Are we developing the attention spans of the proverbial goldfish?

Graham Jones, Internet psychologist:

The attention span of a goldfish is reckoned to be around 9 seconds. A recent study from Microsoft suggests that the human attention span is just 8,25 seconds. So it would seem that humans have a lower attention span than a goldfish. I’ll say that again in case you missed it – humans seem to have a lower attention span than a goldfish. Except, of course, it isn’t true. It all depends upon what you mean by “attention span”.

Like most people, I have picked up a book, become engrossed within the first page and been unable to put it down. Millions of people are able to pay attention to 100,000 word novels, absolutely hooked from start to finish. Yet, just like millions of people I have seen tweets of a dozen words that have had me bored rigid before I am halfway through. So to suggest that there is a standard “attention span” is to miss the point. It is not that we are becoming immune to things thanks to new technology.

Rather we are becoming increasingly surrounded by poor quality, boring and rubbish material. Before the invention of the Internet, anything that was published took ages to get to its audience. It had to go through a long and laborious editing process which meant that at each stage quality was improved. By the time the material got to a reader it was as good as it could be and we paid attention to it because professionals had ensured it wasn’t going to be boring.

Now, thanks to new technology anyone can publish anything online – and they do. The average attention span of web pages is 4 seconds. That’s not because through some psychological impact of the technology. Instead, it is the fact that we are constantly clicking away from rubbish websites. There are billions and billions of poor quality web pages out there which would never have made it through the first round of editing in the professional world of publishing.

Lack of attention is psychologically linked to boredom. We move our attention away from things once we are bored with them. We are bored with much of the Internet because its quality is so low. We are bored with much modern technology because most of it doesn’t actually do anything other than prove how clever the developers are. Do you really need a watch to connect to your phone to connect to your email to let you know that someone you don’t know has posted a picture of their lunch? It’s clever that this can be achieved – but other than the fun factor, it is of little stimulus to our brains and so we get bored quickly with it.

Attention spans may be changing, but what is really happening is that we are getting cleverer at sorting out the good from the bad, focusing only on what is useful and relevant to our lives. The seeming reduction in attention spans is merely a reflection of the pandemic growth in garbage out there thanks to technology and because technology companies are increasingly able to do things for the sake of doing them, rather than for any real value.